As told to Fatima Qureshi
Unspeakable conditions at work, political conflicts at home and the ongoing battle for safety and security, Rita* and Anne* came to Hong Kong from the Philippines nearly 10 years ago in hopes to financially support their families as migrant domestic workers. But unforeseeable circumstances at their agency discontinued further opportunities of employment and Rita and Anne have since been finding suitable spaces and a temporary protected status in Hong Kong, waiting for the right time to return home. This is their story.
When did you first arrive in Hong Kong?
Rita: Yeah. Before I came here as a domestic helper and I’ve been here since 2008. I came here by myself. I started working since 2008 until 2012. In the year 2012, I broke my contract because of some misunderstandings with the employer.
And after you broke the contract with your previous employer did you return to the Philippines?
Rita: No. At that time I was confused and afraid. I had lots of problems back in the Philippines. That’s why I came here as a domestic helper just to avoid those problems. I can’t explain in words to you how bad my condition was.
Where are you living right now?
Rita: I live almost 2 hours away from here. Some of my friends helped me move to their small apartment. At least I’m okay, and I feel safe here. Though I feel it’s better to work but I can’t find a job anymore. It’s really hard to cover your living expenses. I can’t handle it.
Serving up Escabeche (sweet and sour fish) and bitter melon with minced pork (Photo: Yvonne Lau)
Do you wish to return to working as a domestic worker?
Rita: If the government allows it, sure. But I made the decision to apply for an asylum seeking status so that I won’t return to the Philippines once the contract was terminated. They would’ve sent me back. When I went to the immigration department, they wanted evidence of why I’m here in Hong Kong. But I didn’t know or trust anyone here to help provide the evidence.
What kind of questions did the immigration officials ask you?
Rita: You know, questions like why I’m here and what problems are forcing me stay here. Then there was also the hearing. In the hearing, they asked me a few questions already. But that was only the preliminary stage. They have also called me for another hearing at the High Court. I know this is part of the Hong Kong policy, these investigations. But they rejected my application for a refugee status. I felt upset and worried at the time, because I didn’t want to go home. Not now, at least. The problems back in the Philippines still continue today in Mindanao.
Anne: Actually, [Philippines President] Duterte is trying to eliminate the New People’s Army (NPA), the terrorists. But he cannot do it right away. Terrorists in the Philippines have a lot of supporters in the country. That’s why it’s a big problem for us, residents of Mindanao. Duterte is definitely trying to make peace in the city but it takes time and takes a toll of us. Now in Mindanao, he has declared a martial law to minimize crimes.
Stir-frying bitter melon and minced pork (Photo: Yvonne Lau)
And where in Mindanao are you both from?
Anne: We both lived in Marawi. I also came here in 2008. I broke my contract in 2011. I wasn’t able to find another employer anymore because my 14 days during the Chinese New Year holidays were up. The employers were out of the country so I lost my chance to sign a new contract. I decided not to go home anymore because of the political crisis in the Philippines. Before ending my contract 2 months later, I spent a few weeks in the Philippines as a vacation in December. When I returned, that’s when war was waged and lives were lost in fighting the NPA.
I couldn’t think of returning to the middle of war. It was a threat to my life.
Yes, I feel safer here instead of going back to the Philippines for now. The agency didn’t have any more employers, they were still coming back from their holidays. Then it was too late for me.
Rita: I also think that the people in Hong Kong are so busy with the Chinese New Year preparations and arrangements. So there was no time for employers to find domestic workers through agencies. We were out of jobs because of this lengthy time off.
When did you apply for asylum in Hong Kong?
Anne: In 2015, I surrendered. I overstayed my time in Hong Kong without a job. Because I had no knowledge of NGOs or anyone who help refugees in Hong Kong, I didn’t know where to live or go.
Rita: It hasn’t been too long since I joined the Refugee Union. I was just approached by some friends who told me about this place and I planned to stay.
And is it the same for you, Anne?
Anne: Yes, that’s why I’m here too.
Escabeche, or sweet and sour snapper fish with bell peppers (Photo: Arista Devi)
I want to ask for your thoughts on welfare, if there are any difficulties in covering for housing and other living expenses?
Anne: We live together. ISS helps us with rent. Actually, we’ve been talking about it for some time that we want better living conditions. Our home is very small. We only have one room and one bed and we’re 4 people. One of our friends sleeps on the couch. Regarding the coupons, if we compared ourselves to the lower-class citizens in Hong Kong, our $1200 may not even fulfill 1/4th of our daily expenses. We try not to overspend and buy as little food from the grocery store as possible just so the $1200 isn’t used up before the end of the month.
Will you also be returning to the immigration department for a hearing?
Anne: Yes, I’ve visited them many times. The next hearing is in the beginning of May in Sha Tin. I mean I’ve heard from everyone that no one passes the screening test. They’re always refused. We’re always refused.
Are there lawyers helping you fight for an asylum status?
Rita: We have lawyers from the government.
Anne: Yeah. Well, according to them they’re giving us free legal aid. I don’t know if they will still represent us in the High Court. We’re looking for a private law firm but we can’t find anyone and don’t have any money to pay them.
You both have been struggling to obtain a legal refugee status for so long now even though you have had substantial work experience in Hong Kong. Did immigration officials ever take this into account?
Rita: No. But we’ve appealed as a whole troupe and we will continue to do that until we all receive security from the Hong Kong government. See, we’ll eventually return to our respective homes and so we only ask for help to solve our everyday issues with expenses and all.
Anne: But for now-
Rita: For now, we don’t have time to do more. We won’t stay here for too long. We want to go home.
Anne: Yeah, only when the time is right, we will return home in dignity.
Rita: Things have improved since 2012 but if you tune into the news, the problems still carry on.
Anne: As soon as we’ll hear that our home is safe again, we’ll fly back immediately. We don’t want to live in a place that we don’t see any future in.
Rita: Hong Kong, right now is the only place for safety.
(Photo: Arista Devi)
Speaking of which, can you tell me a little bit about what you cooked today?
Anne: We made chicken afritada, bitter melon with eggs, minced pork and fish that we call Escabeche with macaroni salad.
Rita: I remember cooking these Filipino dishes for our families and friends back home everyday.